Boatpeople Will Flee as Asean Ignores Burma’s Rohingya Racism

A Rohingya boat is battered by waves on Phuket earlier this year A Rohingya boat is battered by waves on Phuket earlier this year
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September 10, source Phuketwan

PHUKET: Anti-Rohingya racism in Burma threatens to undermine Asean and strain relationships between the regional group’s partner nations.

As Thailand’s Internal Security Operations Command prepares to intecept boatpeople along the Andaman Sea coast around Phuket, Malaysia and Indonesia are expressing unprecedented indignation at Burma’s attitude.

Burma aspires to chair Asean in 2014, and in 2015 the Asean Economic Community arrives to unite the 10-nation group as never before.

But the Rohingya will have to be made citizens of Burma first to placate the two largest and most powerful Muslim-majority nations in the grouping.

Inevitably, in the face of a growing rift over Rohingya racism, Asean leaders are mouthing the usual platitudes.

The Asean Secretary-General, Dr Surin Pitsuwan, a Thai Muslim, seemed embarrassed in responding to a Phuketwan question about the issue late last week.

”We are listening, we are co-ordinating, we are sending messages,” he said obliquely.

”Indonesia has appointed a special envoy. A lot of NGOs in Malaysia are interested, and we are in close co-ordination, trying to encourage and advise within the framework of Asean. We don’t want to make the issue even worse.”

Indeed. Things are bad enough. And inaction has always been what Asean does best, especially where human rights are involved.

The treatment of the Rohingya by Burma has been appalling for decades. It’s hardly surprising, though, that the rights of these downtrodden people were overlooked in the greed rush as Burma opened its doors to welcome reforms.

But the plight of the Rohingya was never going to be improved. Burma’s racism has now become such a blatant breach of international norms of acceptance and tolerance that the Asean ”community” is likely to be stressed to breaking point.

More signs of agitation will become apparent in Washington at the weekend when Burma’s much-admired Aung San Suu Kyi visits and is certain to be pressed to explain her silence about the Rohingya.

Racism has such a grip on Burma that its leading democracy advocate dare not even mention the word ”Rohingya” for fear her supporters will turn against her. So much for fairness and justice.

America’s online Huffington Post watchdog is ready and waiting, priming readers with an article headlined: Should Aung San Suu Kyi be Stripped of her Nobel Peace Prize? and huffing: ”Her silence on the plight of the Muslim Rohingya people . . . is inexplicable in light of her previous moral stands against oppression.”

Resentment is also mounting within the Muslim world, with Indonesia and Malaysia at the forefront of the clamor for a Rohingya rapprochment as a precondition for Burma’s acceptance back into the international community.

Asean remains a limp regional body with no backbone. It will be up to the US, the Europeans and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to barter a solution with Burma.

Meanwhile, Thailand awaits a new wave of Rohingya boats as the unwanted residents of Rakhine state take the advice of Burma’s President Thein Sein and flee their country.

Under the present policy, the boats will be intercepted at sea and not allowed to land in Thailand, said Colonel Manat Kongpan, who heads Thailand’s Internal Security Operations Command, Fourth Region.

”We expect women and children to be on the boats for the first time,” he said. ”The boats will be given food, water and fuel if necessary. We will even help repair engines.

”But the boats will not be allowed ashore in Thailand.”

The policy of keeping the boatpeople at sea saves the cost of lengthy mass detentions in Thailand.

It is also not as likely to bring international condemnation as the ”pushback” policy did in 2008 and 2009 when Rohingya were secretly towed out to sea and cut adrift. Hundreds perished before the policy changed.

”The Rohingya usually have been at sea for a week or 10 days by the time they reach Thailand waters,” Colonel Manat said. ”We will help them to go wherever they wish to go, as long as it is not Thailand.”

Journalists are not being permitted to venture into Burma around the town of Sitwe where Rohingya homes have been razed and hundreds of people are being kept in camps.

These are Suu Kyi’s unmentionables, the people most likely – once the monsoon season ends within weeks – to risk their lives in rough boats on rough seas, through rough international politics.

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